Brendan Reilly thought he was doing good work as an administrative member of the Illinois State basketball coaching staff, spending eight hours a day editing game video into scouting DVDs for the Redbirds players.
“Then I’d watch them walk out of the room and half the guys would throw them in the trash,” Reilly said. “Then we’d play Wichita State, and they would run the exact play I was trying to tell them about. So I was like, there’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be a better way.”
Over the next several years Reilly finally found not just a better way but a totally new, innovative, evolving and literally game-changing way.
Through virtual reality video, Eon Sports VR is altering how teams, including the Rays and previously the Bucs, and individual athletes train and prepare. Its system provides more sophisticated data while reducing the time commitment and physical toll of practice.
“Virtual reality,” Reilly said, “is the great equalizer.”
Eon is on the leading edge of the burgeoning sports virtual reality industry, where constantly evolving advances in data and technology, especially in terms of mobility and interactivity, are integral.
The products, some of which can be accessed simply with an app and goggles that fit around a cell phone, can be divided roughly into three areas:
• What has gotten the most attention is the work with major-league teams, where scouting reports on opposing pitchers are brought to virtual life. They have done less sophisticated work in football with computer-generated playbooks and 360-degree video of pre-snap reads for quarterbacks. And they have provided virtual scouting programs for European pro soccer and rugby teams.
“It’s very clear those front offices are going to do everything they can to give their guys a competitive edge,” Reilly said.
• Eon also has ventured into youth sports training with a program called Project OPS, fronted by former big-leaguer Jason Giambi, that focuses on strike zone awareness and pitch recognition in something of an advanced video game form.
• And what is just launching, with the potential for explosive and exponential growth, are fan experiences, providing, for example, the virtual opportunity to run out of the pregame tunnel with your favorite football team or be on the field for batting practice or on a court shooting 3-pointers, and with friends.
Facing a virtual pitcher
The Rays are one of a “handful” of teams — they won’t allow Reilly to say for competitive reasons, though the Pirates and Indians reportedly are among others — that have invested six figures in the iCube training system, which allows hitters a virtual preview of pitchers they will be facing.
The cube — a 10-foot square, set up behind the batting cage at the Trop — includes a video screen that shows the requested pitcher (and stadium backdrop), allowing the hitter to experience the delivery, release point and velocity as well as a detailed read on the spin and break on the pitches.
Hitters can get as specific as they want — requesting, for example, David Price, pitching at the Trop, elevated fastballs, outer half of the plate — with data, acquired from the teams, updated nightly to reflect changes, and past performance also logged.
There is also a virtual home plate for the hitters to see where the pitches went. Still being refined, which some players say is needed, is the tracking technology for “hitting” the virtual pitches.
“You will never replace onfield work, you’ve got to do that, but there are certain things like scouting reports you can enhance,” Reilly said. “I’m sure 15 years ago it was pen and paper, then it went to pen and paper with video. Now you can supplement that with, ‘Here is what it’s going to be like when you face him.’ That is where we can really drive innovation.”
Not all Rays players use the system, some preferring to stick with their standard methods. Some Rays who experimented earlier in the season haven’t gone back. But those who do find it quite helpful.
“Baseball is the only sport where nobody practices at full speed,” outfielder Steven Souza Jr. said. “They’re trying to get as close as they can, and this is one of the ways you can get as close as you can. I don’t know how far they can take it, but it’s really nice to go in and see things like arm slot and pretty close to the (velocity) and the movement.”
Reilly said for the most part, “the younger guys adopt it a little more. And that has nothing to do with baseball, but everything to do with human behavior.”
Some teams have also integrated the system into their minor-league training. And Eon is looking to expand its deals with individual players who want access to the data remotely, although with less detailed presentation and interactivity, on their phones or iPads, similar to how teams provide them regular video.
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